Be small. Feel big.

Go outside.
Tonight. After dark.
Lay on your back in the grass.
Open your eyes.
Crickets will sing and maybe, if you’re lucky, an owl will slice your heart open with its call.

The moon will rise.DSC_0556

Look the moon straight in the eye and make a promise. Promise to learn one new thing about this wild world you inhabit.

Discover the name of the first star you see next to the moon. Recognize its distance. Marvel. In all the dark there exists multiple tiny points of light.  Every night. Imagine all the light we miss when we’re not paying attention.

Can you discover the species of owl that lives in the pine. What does it eat? Where does it winter? How will it find water if there’s no rain tomorrow? How do you describe its song?


Write this down. Date it. Do this again tomorrow. And again.

We will want a record of this. For our children. Our grandchildren and their children.

We will want them to know what lived with us one night when we paused to notice a miracle of balance and diversity, of red tailed hawks, of free-tailed bats, of carpenter worm moths at twilight.

Summer will fall to autumn.

This season too will rattle its saber with unprecedented flood and fire. It will tell us that our earth is changing.

If your house flooded or burned, what would you grab as you fled?
If your earth slowly crumbled and flooded and burned away, what would you try to save?

Watch how slowly the moon moves.
See how rocks or silver-toned leaves shimmer in its light.
Open your palms and see how you too shimmer in moonlight.

Remember the scene from Apollo 13, the scene where Tom Hanks, playing astronaut Jim Lovell, sits in his backyard. He holds up his right thumb against the night sky. His thumb completely blots out the moon.

We humans get in our own way of wonder.  Yet this very wonder, at the human scale, is that which can touch us most frequently, most deeply.

When you’re ready, return inside. Spread the moon’s gentle touch to those your hand touch. Tonight. Tomorrow. Learn the wild ways of those you love.

With grass in her hair,

p.s.  I came across an interesting call for submissions today.  The Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment is looking for “new or renewed forms our writing can take.”  If your work reads like “the broken-hearted hallelujah, the witness, the narrative of the moral imagination, the radical imaginary, the indictment or the apologia” you might consider joining your voice with others in essay, fiction, poetry, nonfiction, or academic article. Deadline is Sept. 30. For more information, read the entire To Write as if the Planet Were Dying: A Call To Writers. 

Life Version

Composing Self: The title of a class I teach this semester. The work of a life.

I can’t tell you about the struggle between silence and witness that rumbles between my ribs this September.  Do I better serve the world with words or actions?  The gaps in my journal suggest I’m favoring the work of hands not head, behaving more like a silent tree than a writer, a physical manifestation rather than a noetic one.


I sit alone with my mother-in-law in the hospital.  Between the wracking coughs of a deeply settled pneumonia, she tells me about a childhood friend who taught her to make Greek pastry and dance. “I used to love to dance,” she tells me. We stare out the window at impossibly glaring blue.  Will I dance enough?

An e-mail arrives inviting me to participate again in the Big Orange Book Festival. I find my journal entry written after last year’s event where I created and presented a mash-up of lines from dirtcakes, the literary and art journal I publish.

It’s 3:55 p.m. and I stand outside on the top of the cement steps leading to the library. I’m here to read to a crowd and there are two people waiting. One is my student trying to “get in my good graces,” the other is my niece being supportive. Muzak fills the piazza, a barefoot boy in a green shirt splashes in the fountain, a small red train on rubber wheels weaves in and out of the piazza with one mother and one girl sitting in the back car.  The conductor toots the horn and the small boy playing in the fountain giggles and waves and I pause and I wave because there’s nothing else to do.

The breeze, slight in the 94 degree afternoon with no shade, is enough to blow across the microphone meaning I must speak above the wind, above the water falling from the fountain, above the train tooting, the children laughing.

I shout out into the nothingness and even if I wasn’t a writer the metaphor for this moment as a physical manifestation of the void into which a small journal of arts and letters launches is apparent.

No one pays attention, except perhaps the man in the orange shirt with the white name tag. I can’t read his name from his distance at the bottom of the stairs but he nods, smiles encouragingly which of course he must do because he is working this literary festival.

I ditch my opening, the bit about this being the last day of summer, the question about viewing the space shuttle Endeavor on its last journey through the sky, the query about anyone knowing that today, this day, is the UN International Day of Peace.

Ten minutes I’ve promised. Ten minutes I’ll give.  The wind distorts my voice and I begin.

“This is the poem I fought.”

I’ve been fighting for this poem, this journal, this desire to rattle the status quo and inspire someone to join me, many someones  to join me, in meeting humanity in letters and poems and stories and action.

My student never looks at me. He types on his computer. My niece looks around the piazza, up in the sky as a low plane buzzes overhead, at the train, now on its third loop (toot-toot) through the piazza.

I stand a little taller.
I raise my voice.
I don’t give a damn.

“Now that she can read nothing can undo her.”

“green stagnant mother becomes a library. just bear down and bear down again.”

What the hell does it take for one woman with a global vision to make an impact? What do the laws of physics say about matter never being created nor destroyed. Surely these words land somewhere. I believe in these words, this dirtcakes project. I power through sections 1, 2 and 3 and 4,

“What the Night Maid draws when she can’t dream at night.”

I am the night maid. I created that line from my own dream of reaching readers. It hovers in the gloaming, just out of reach, a refrigerator light in a dark kitchen.

“shut the goddamn icebox.”

Today feels like an empty plate, an empty vision, a wasting of the kind that creates bloated bellies and I wonder why this ever felt so important to me.

I skip section 10 and most of 11 except this line which is exactly what I would make up on the spot if it wasn’t already in black and white in my hand:

“Imagine…me, an ordinary woman full of air, rocking and blowing into twilight.”

Rocking and blowing air and dreams and questions and frustration building into a sort of dignity coupled with the indignity of speaking to no one, but two.  I hope my words travel as (toot-toot) the train loops, the wind blows across the microphone, the little boy in the fountain stops splashing and waves at me his smile full of teeth white teeth. Will he remember any of this?

I read from section 12.

“I’m willing to hope now. Convince me.”
“turn around, say crazy trains, man, [say] crazy

I read and wonder how the poem knew it would end like this.

I decline the invitation to participate this year and wonder if I’m losing my ambition or composing a new self.  I wonder how you ever know if you danced enough. Will we spend  enough time marveling at the impossibly beautiful ordinary days?


With face turned toward the blue,
~ Catherine

How many words in a world?

“I was reading the dictionary. I thought it was a poem about everything.”

Steven Wright’s quip isn’t too far off from the way this poet thinks. I look at the dictionary, all the words right there at my fingertips. If only they’d arrange themselves to perfection.

photo-48This is the corner of my office where, day by day in July, a new poem literally got hung on the line. Writing a poem a day has been a rigorous creative exercise, but the toil is completely offset by the thrill of sharing space with 8 other poets, discovering their new-to-me voices and fresh perspectives on the world each day.  To honor my fellow July poets, Risa Denenberg, Jennifer Faylor, Janet Ruth Heller, David Koehn, Richard O’Brien, Claudia Rodriguez, Mobi Warren, and Nicholas YB Wong, I created a cento using some of my favorite lines from their July poetry. A cento is a “patchwork” or collage of lines from other poets.

Highlight Reel: Homage For the July Poetry Crew      

Is a poem everything?

What I am trying to say here is my wild wiry hair suddenly has aphasia.
Fire knows no diva can sing god’s linked tongue.
Delta Force of the written word
orange swoon of monarchs

(breathe deep):   the stairway is not
red tulips.

Frogs sing in the pond, purple martins maneuver in squadrons;
orchestra of nerve endings
slows to a steady beat.

If I’m lucky, hummingbirds or deer pass through my yard, and I write a poem.
Two door hinges,
a latch, a handle from the old shed.
God’s voice
rustling toward you.
The way
most of the body is water, yet manages not to seem so.

We knew that being in love 
in saltwater is always a mistake.
The moon blue
shy at first to know you,
frenulum that binds the tongue to the mouth-cave, arresting language.


We hack our way through rough brush, thorns, vines that
strangle the forest—the agony of vaulting the temple wall
only to discover the gods have moved away.

The radio is a comfort–
to be on the same frequency, possibly, as you are.
Words can’t be arrested,
Go at you — rock’ em sock’ em robots.

No doom descends on Michigan.
A dull
Eye translates what
You see.

Break me a sunrise 
in a cup.

In and out of time,
the stars remain the same;
in the marrow of limestone caves,
silent albinos⎯rare blind beetles,
eyeless spiders, lived.

the jays clamor
hidden in the pleated grass—
a warrior heart on her sleeve—

Into the air on a dare, the arrow was meant to strike a concrete
Blue whale.

A woman opens a book and finds her mother’s handwriting in the margins,
gets up to sharpen pencils.

Everything is a poem.

To read more from the July poets, including their bios and links to their author websites, take a leap over to the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project site. It’s a rather remarkable repository of extraordinary poetic lines.

On an entirely unrelated note, yesterday I was surprised by a sudden influx of dragon flies in my garden. Maybe they want their own Sacred Garden tanka?

I wish you some sort of beautiful bewilderment today.

Some of us work, some of us play

umbrellasAnd the tireless poet celebrates you all.
For your Monday morning reading pleasure, Day 29 poem:

Litany to Our Saints of Perpetual Summer
To the umbrella bearers and the striped short wearers:
Play for us.

To the sand ploppers and the watermelon choppers:
Play for us.

To the sleeping babies, squalling babies, toddling babies and nursing babies:
Play for us.

To the squealing toddlers who wear twirly skirts
and the fathers who swoop them out of waves’ way:
Play for us.

To the man dragging his foot in a cast across sand
trailing woman with red feathers stuck in her headband:
Play for us.

To all you straggly-haired feral boys who skim board at dawn and the mongrel who yelps at you:
Play for us.

To the teenage girl in black trunks and the white shirt skipping rocks in the surf
and the boy on a rock in the shadow (yes I see you) rolling weed on your skateboard:
Play for us.

To the tortilla maker, the chocolate chip baker, the spring roll roller and potato chip taker:
Play for us.

To mothers who brush sand off sons’ backs
and little girls squinting eyes against sunscreen spray:
Play for us.

To all the young girls wearing fringe string bikinis and boys in sagged bottoms,
all the hands holding hands, and the waited-for-kisses:
Play for us.

To smash ballers, and crossword scholars;
to football throwers, and volleyball spikers, to frisbee catchers and sand unicyclers;
to the lady in red cowboy hat skipping with a man in green paisley head scarf:
Play for us.

To the anorexic and the morbidly obese and the lifeguards who save us:
Play for us.

To the girl taking a picture of the boy taking a picture of himself at the beach with a girl:
Play for us.

Here’s to beer guts and melon round pink baby bellies
To furry-backed men with Brazilian-waxed babes in gold jellies
To old guys in puka shells and shark-teeth leather leashes
To thongs and board shorts and long skirts fluttering on beaches
To tattoos of stars, tattoos of tears, tattoos of dolphins and cherubs and spears
To tattoos of skulls and tattoos of crosses, to tattoos of names so as to not forget losses

To the blue cooler bearers and the plastic pail pickers
To the haters and the lovers and the daily sun seekers
To the tide pool pluckers and the drooling day nappers
To the rock sculpture builders and the sand castle blasters
To the brown bag lunch packers and the debit card snackers
To the trash bin pickers and the empty can nickers
To shade where you need it and free bathrooms and benches
and to workers cleaning up after us in the sand’s sandy trenches

To the entire communion of summer vacation day souls:
Please, please, play for us.


You’ll find dozens of more delightful poems for July on the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project website where “Litany to Our Saints of Perpetual Summer” first appeared.


Sacred Garden

Air. Earth. Water. Fire. Find the four elements of nature within life, love, work, garden, and art and you’ll create a sense of balance without boredom, surprise without chaos.

These elements have long been subjects for poets.

The Fire, Air, Earth and Water did contest
Which was the strongest, noblest and the best,

wrote Anne Bradstreet, “the first woman to be recognized as an accomplished New World poet,” in her poem, “Four Elements [Fire, Earth, Air and Water].”


In the spirit of Sunday as a day of rest, and with an invitation to you, dear reader, to find sacred places within your own garden, patio, or apartment, I give you Day 28 poetry for the 30/30 Project.  I composed four tanka: 5 line poems with  5,7,5,7,7 syllables per line, for a complete 31 syllable poem.

Sacred Garden: Four Tanka
Canyon breathes, trembles
manzanilla olive leaves.
Starlings flush. Startle
golden garden bells. Birthday
gift erupts in temple song.

Angel’s apple tree
holds his palm imprint above
rootline his hands once
grasped, now both deeply buried —
roots and hands at rest in ground.


Patter on copper
rain chain drips a water chant.
Peace Rose bends toward war
veteran’s gate. I watch him stand
in open storm, hands clutch rain.

Votives lit on rocks
every night an evening prayer.
Dinosaur bones once
found here, two fossils. We too
press lantern path, watch light rise.


While I’m happy enough with these poems – written in a day – they’re not finished, in a true poetic sense yet. Complete tanka needs a turn between lines 3 and 4, “a pivotal image, which marks the transition from the examination of an image to the examination of the personal response.” Poems, like gardens, need constant pruning, rearranging, and feeding.  What inspires you?  Why don’t you try your hand at writing tanka today while your feet are resting on a ledge.  You’ll find a complete discussion of the form on the Academy of American Poets website here.

To balance,

p.s. In the spirit of small things, did you know that a donation of $10 to the 30/30 Project as a gesture of support and love for poetry and its publication, is as beautiful as the tiny blossoms on Angel’s apple tree?

Endless Summer? Not quite.

July is summer’s Saturday. It’s hugged on both sides with summer months so it feels long and free and endless. While there’s still plenty of time to celebrate all the joys of the season,  there’s no denying we’re almost at its halfway point. How are you doing on your  Weekend Dish – Summer Scavenger Hunt?


Grab a friend, get inspired and go make a memory. Remember to take a photo each time you complete one of the 101 Days of Summer activities.  Post photos on Instagram, #backyardsisters_101days

Race you to September!
1. Perfect your go-to summer barbecue meal.
2. Learn a new grilling technique. For a great veggie grilling video, click here.
3. Invite a new neighbor for dinner. Make it potluck.

Mem Day potluck1
4. Eat outside. Every night. Unless there’s thunder and lightening.
5. Eat by candlelight. Every night. Outside. Unless.
6. Sit on the grass with your dog’s head in your lap.
7. Watch fireflies.  If you catch them in a jar, be sure to let them out before you go to bed.
8. Learn 5 new objects in the night sky.  The free app SkyViewFree uses an i-phone’s camera as viewfinder.
9. Plan ahead to find a dark viewing spot for the Perseid Meteor Shower, August 11 and 12.  You’ll catch the summer’s best display of shooting stars. More info here.
10. Make your own ice cream. You don’t even need an ice cream maker. Check it out here.
sunset11. Stay up late.
12. Get up early. Photograph your days.
13. Learn the names of 5 birds in your neighborhood.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has an amazing library of birdcalls. Link here.


14. Take your morning beverage on the porch, patio, or near an open window.
15. Prop your bare feet on a ledge.
16. Plant one living thing, even in a small pot if you don’t have a yard.
17. Plant something you can eat. A few green onions. Parsley. One tomato plant.
18. Visit a farmer’s market.
19. Take home something you’ve never eaten before.
20. Eat it.



21. Learn to make the perfect margarita or mojito or favorite frozen treat.
22. Invite neighbors over to help you drink it.
23. Visit your mom and dad.
24. Look at photos from childhood family vacations; yours and theirs.
25. Record favorite memories either on video or audio.
26. Visit your children.
27. Look at photos from family vacations; yours and theirs.
28. Record favorite memories.
29. Create a family yearbook of photos.
30. Do one thing that scares you.

get wet

31. Swim in a natural body of water.
32. Cannonball into the deep end of a pool.
33. Play Marco Polo.
34.  Learn one new water skill: surfing, body surfing, paddle boarding, water ballet moves.
35. Teach your new skill.
36. Pick fresh blueberries.
37. Make a summer fruit cobbler. For the Backyard Sisters favorite cobbler recipe, click here.
38. Eat dinner on a blanket under a tree.
39. Walk after dinner through town or your neighborhood.
40. Listen.
41. Hike a new trail.
42. Learn the names of 5 new native plants in your region.
43. Visit 3 new state parks. The rangers there will know the names of the plants.
44. Take a new friend with you.
45. Volunteer for a park clean-up day.
46. Tune your guitar, your piano, your cello, your drum, your voice.
47. Learn one solid song.
48. Lose your inhibition.
49. Make a campfire.
50. Sing under the stars.
51. Make s’mores.
52. Sleep under the stars.
53. Learn how to remove ticks from your dog. (Same concept applies to humans.) Great video here.

54. Sketch, photograph, or journal what distinguishes your local ecosystem from others.
55. Learn 5 edible plants.
56. Learn 5 poisonous plants.
57. Learn to pack lightly.
58. Learn to clean up after yourself.
59. Learn to read a map.
60. Get lost.
61. Go to a car show.
62. Attend your state or county fair.

stevenson quote

63. Submit something: homemade beer, photography, literature.
64. Hold hands on the Ferris wheel.
65. If you win a giant stuffed panda, give it away to a neighborhood kid.
66. Visit the booths with prize-winning pies and jams and wines.
67. Congratulate the blue-ribbon winners. Ask one fine question about their process.
68. Hear an outdoor concert.
69. Watch an outdoor movie.
70. Wait for the Milky way.
71. Visit your local library.
72. Remember summer reading when you were a kid? Check out ten books.
73. Visit an independent bookstore. Buy one thing.

74. Hear a live author reading.
75. Thank the author in person.
76. Perfect one aspect of your craft: Great openings. Killer closings. Trimming the fat from word count.
77. Slow dance under the Full Flower Moon on May 25.
78. Sip strawberry wine under the Full Strawberry Moon on June 23.
79.  Dance with abandon under the Full Thunder Moon on July 22.
80. Fish under the Full Sturgeon Moon on August 20.   For full moon name meanings, click here.
81. Invite neighbors over for a pancake breakfast.
82. Visit the housebound neighbor who couldn’t come.
83. Bring flowers, or stories, or one of your photos.


84. Call your grandmother or grandfather or aunt or uncle or long lost cousin.
85. Tell them about the trees and birds and stars. Ask about the view from their window.
86. Ask about their favorite summer memory.
87. Remember to return your library books.
88. Lie on your back on the grass and watch the clouds.
89. Swing.
90. Swim again. Again. Again.

balcony art
91. Travel.
92. Learn five bits of history about one place you’ll visit.
93. Read before you go.  You can find a literary companion for more than 20 destinations from Whereabouts Press where the mission “is to convey a culture through its literature.”
94. Attend an outdoor art show.
95. Bike ride. On a beach cruiser. Along the beach if you’re lucky.
96. Learn hello, goodbye, please, thank-you and I love you in five new languages.
97. Learn how to come home.
98. Harvest and eat your one small thing standing barefoot on your own patch of ground, balcony, stone or wood.
99. Cut flowers from your yard. Take some to your neighbor.
100. Send an old fashioned hand-written note, with some herbs or fragrant leaves.
101. Set 5 small items – a shell, a rock, a poem – from your summer on your desk.


With water in my ear and sand on my toes,

Weekend Dish: Secrets

dish: The scoop, only bigger
Urban Dictionary


Shhhh. I held up my hand to silence the chattering ladies sitting around a fire in our mountain cabin. It was nearing midnight on a Saturday.


A faint whistle chirped from down the hall. Leaving the group of women, I felt my way in the dark along the wall toward a closed door.


Yes, the sound was definitely coming from inside the bedroom where a troop of seven-year-old Girl Scouts were “camping” heel-to-toe in sleeping bags on the floor.  I slowly pushed the door open, peering in.

“Mrs. Keefe, Mrs. Keefe!” S sobbed. “I’m lost! I’m lost! I need to go to the bathroom but I don’t know where I am.  You said if we get lost to ‘hug a tree’ but there isn’t a tree, so I stayed where I was and blew my whistle!”  She held up a plastic orange whistle on a lanyard. We’d given all the girls a whistle at the beginning of the trip before heading out on the first hike.

Biting my lips to near bleeding to avoid laughing I helped S to the bathroom, turned on a nightlight, and returned to my fellow Girl Scout leaders around the fire to report that at least one little scout had fully learned her safety lesson for the day.

“If you get lost, hug a tree, stay where you are, and blow your whistle.”

This story flashed back brightly yesterday while having a conversation with my friend, D, the kind of friend who will read poetry because I write it and I’m working on this crazy poem-a-day in July project.  D is a brilliant retired high-tech software expert who can speak in acronyms like IT, HRMS, and ISM and know exactly what they mean.

“But I don’t get poetry,” she says. This is a difficult thing for her to admit; she’s really really smart. She’s so smart, in fact, that I’m pretty sure she does “get” poetry, but she doesn’t realize the things she intuitively picks up on are in fact some of the elemental wonders of the genre: poetry’s rhythm, its imagery and word play.

D tells me – in that way of good friends being kind so maybe they’ll lie a tiny bit – that she likes my “One Poet’s Trade” from Day 6.  (You can read it here; scroll down to Day 6.) She shakes her head as if trying to dislodge water from her ear. “But I don’t think I get it.”

“What do you get?” I ask. What I really want to know is which tree she’s hugging. I wonder if she recognizes the repetition of sounds, if she notice the two-line stanza structure, if she notices the ways each first line word and second line word are related to each other.

“Well…I hear some T sounds that are the same and some V sounds are the same. And it’s all a list. The list is in two-word order but I don’t know why.”

I nudge a little. “What if I told you that each first word is a tool of some trade? And what if I told you that each second word is a body part.”

She pauses. Thinks. “Then it goes in order from your head to your feet!”  I nod.

“But what about the end?”  Ah yes, what to make of those last lines? Who is this “you?”

I don’t answer that for her. I invite her to ponder.

And then I have a bright orange whistle of an idea.


For one week only, from July 7 – 14, if you make a $25 donation to the 30/30 Project, “In Honor of Catherine Keefe” I’ll give you all the navigation you need to get out of the woods for  Day 7-14 poems. Message me here as a comment in Backyard Sisters, or find me on Facebook.  You can pretty much ask me anything: the back story behind the poem, how it developed, the language decision-making process, and what I was hoping the poem would invoke in a reader.

In return you can tell me where the poem succeeds or fails for you, dear reader.  As Anne Stevenson once wrote,

The poet needs to reach out to people he or she has not met. That someone will read your poem and say ‘Yes, that is right; I know that, I recognise that.’ I think poetry always has that interior communicable strength.

Here’s to “communicable strength” and divulging secrets. This Backyard Sister is willing to dish.
~ Catherine

p.s. Please note that it takes up to a week for Tupelo Press to notify the poets of donations made in their honor. The minute I hear from the press, I’ll open up to you.


What do you bring to the table?

Which way will the creek
run when time ends?
Don’t ask me until
this wine bottle is empty.

~ Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser

“What did you notice that was beautiful today?” When J asked me this last night, just as we sat down to dinner, I cracked up.


It’s not a funny question, but rather an example of his dear effort to honor a request I made after breakfast.

“Please don’t ask me at dinner what I did today, or how my day went, ask where I found beauty.” I implored him in the morning as I hustled to my office.

“And what do you want me to ask you tonight?” I called over my shoulder.

“You can ask how my day went. I like to remember what I got done.”

Life has always yelled at me,
“Get your work done.” At least
that’s what I think she says.
~ Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser

What we focus upon comes to light. My request was part self defense – I always give myself more to do in any given day than I can ever accomplish and then feel bad when I don’t finish. And it was part new strategy; I want to pay more attention to life’s surprises of  grace and grandeur hiding in plain sight rather than concentrating only on how I try to unruffle its challenges.  I’m trying to adjust the outlook I bring to my day and our dinner table.

smooth coral

What do you talk about at dinner?

I’ve begun asking friends without children at home this question.

We don’t talk, we watch TV.
I don’t know, nothing, what we did that day.
What’s coming up on our calendar.
Funny stuff the dog did.

What did I expect? The better question is, what do I want, what does J want?  If gathering around the table is a nightly ritual so important that we set its time, its chef and menu (we trade cooking duty), its location and literally light its candles, then doesn’t it follow that we might also guide its conversational swoops and soars?

When our kids were home we had a standard dinner starting point that inevitably opened doors to conversation that often lasted long past dessert.

What was the best part of your day?
What was the worst?

Trials and triumphs of school and sports, of work and home life and friends trickled out over roasted chicken and broccoli.  If friends joined us, they too got pulled into the daily circle, some shy at first to say, but inevitably relaxed enough to tell about a moment that set this day apart.

I eventually bought Chat Packs, those decks of cards with dozens of conversation starters. We played Brain Quest and Would you rather?  I still sometimes put little stacks of these cards next to the napkins at dinner parties or spread them around the appetizers at family gatherings.

Am I inherently nosy? Afraid of conversational lull? Maybe yes and yes. But I like to think that even more than that, I really like the idea of getting to know the people I share time with. The worst kind of dinner is one where I don’t learn a single new thing about the ones I pause with at the end of the gift of another day.


Last night I learned two truths. Each day delivers beauty; my husband remembers and honors my requests. Maybe those are really one big truth.

Where did you find beauty today?

p.s. For literary grace and grandeur, you could do worse than getting your hands on a copy of Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry by Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser.
1317_lgTreasure what you find
already in your pocket, friend.
~ Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser

The book is the best kind of conversation, where no one voice dominates, in fact no one poet takes individual credit for any of the short stanzas.  From the back cover:

Longtime friends, Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser always exchanged poems in their letter writing. After Kooser was diagnosed with cancer several years ago, Harrison found that his friend’s poetry became “overwhelmingly vivid,” and they began a correspondence comprised entirely of brief poems.

…When asked about attributions for the individual poems, one of them replied, “Everyone gets tired of this continuing cult of the personality…This book is an assertion in favor of poetry and against credentials.”

Maybe I’ll bring it to the dinner table tonight.

The Young Fathers and the Sea

“I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us.”
~Umberto Eco

Fathers play harder than mothers. Mothers stand at the edge of the sea, snapping photos of fathers teaching the children that fun might include being roughed up by the ocean.



I suspect mothers are secretly glad the fathers take this job. Children don’t whine when the broad-shouldered fathers take them out in water well over their head. Come on. You can do it. I’m right here.


The children show off a little. Splash their dad. Swim away from him, then back. Cling to his neck.  I want to tell the children how this memory will imprint on their bodies. When they are decades older, swimming in the even deeper waters of life, they will recall a surge of power, an inner rush that feels like being a super hero, a whisper from one strong enough to hold you up. You can do this. Yes you can. Come on, I’m right here.

My father taught me, among many things, to body surf and ride waves with a bouncy rubber surf mat in the olden days before Boogie Boards. We roamed Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, Newport Beach, La Jolla.  Family outings and vacations were frequently at the beach, always in the water riding waves on rubber mats.


How did my dad, a boy from upstate New York, learn enough wave riding skills to guide his four daughters through all the surf the Pacific could muster, including the most memorable session of all, riding the June, 1973 epic Newport Beach surf churned up by Hurricane Ava? When I ask my father a question, he responds.

In 1945  Richard J. (Dick) Beachman, Captain, USMC, took me, his ten year old second cousin, into the surf at  Pacific Beach, CA. He held class. “I’m going to show you  how to to swim out into the surf. How to use this piece of ‘gear’ to catch a wave and ride the wave onto the shore.” What he called “a piece of gear” was a mattress cover he had taken (his term was “I liberated it”) from the U.S. Naval Hospital, San Diego where he was being treated.  A Japanese sniper’s bullet went through his left hand as he waved his Marines forward during the battle for the island of Guam in July, 1944.
“First thing you do is wet the mattress cover in the surf so it’ll hold some air. Then, hold the open end toward the wind and let it fill up with air. At the same time tie the open end shut. Now you’ve got a big wet cloth balloon. Quick, wade out into the surf, look for a wave coming in. When you see one, turn your back toward the wave, put your arms and chest onto the cover and ride in onto the beach.”
Dick, my younger brother Kevin and I went ‘surfing’ several times. He always brought his ‘liberated’ mattress cover. But, in time he was discharged from the Marine Corp. Dick and his Navy nurse, Juna, fell in love, were married 62 years and raised six children. The mattress cover went with him, or them  —  or,  maybe, he returned it to the hospital.
Though Dick’ mattress cover disappeared I was hooked on riding waves onto the shore. it didn’t take long to learn how to body surf without artificial aid.  I enjoyed the sport for many years; a sport I shared with our four daughters.
There are no photos of the young father with his four daughters in the sea because the picture taking job would have fallen to the mother, a woman unable to swim but determined that her children would learn, love, and thrive in the water. She wouldn’t have taken her eyes off the lifeguard, making sure he was doing his job watching us.
The lessons learned in the ocean have lingered with all the Backyard Sisters, proving to be as valuable in life as in the Pacific.
like this

Respect the ocean. Never turn your back on here. That isn’t the same as being afraid. Respect and fear both have a place in life and the wise know which is which.

Walk behind your children. They learn to lead but know you always have their back.

If your daughter crashes and burns, let her cry on your shoulder for just a minute, then remind her of all the way she succeeds.

It’s OK not to know how to do something, but it’s not OK not to try it.


The thrill of learning something from your dad will linger for a lifetime.


Thanks dad for making it seem like you were just playing hard with your kids in the ocean. I see now what you were really doing.

What memory will you share with your father this weekend?
With gratitude,

Wild thing

Coyote yips drift through the open bedroom window sometime before dawn. It’s May’s most consistent night song. Chester’s hackles rise and he growls low. I pull the sheet over my ears.

Regal ChesterChester’s been chased by a coyote three times. These aren’t the lean, mangy, skulking wild dogs of past years. This crop of fat boys trot across the trail. They sit. Cross their legs. Light a cigarette, pinky ring glinting in the morning glare before they chase.

First time it happened, J was walking Chester. He stood his ground, raised his arms and yelled “Stop!” When it was my turn at the wrong end of a coyote chase I did the same. The coyote cocked his head, tightened his silk cravat, emulated the Don Draper eyebrow lift and then slowed his pursuit to a model-like prowl.

Chester bolted, leaving me to walk backwards until I couldn’t see the whites of coyote’s eyes any more. A chilling sweep of goose bumps rose on my neck.

It’s not an option to stay indoors when this is steps from my backyard.

trail vista

But where there is prey, there are predators.

oh deer

Last night, I dream there’s a lion with full mane in my house, barreling down the hallway toward my bedroom.  I slam and lock the door, lean against the wood which cracks and creaks and splinters against my hand. I call out to J in his office. There’s a lion in the hallway! Shut your door!  He’s working on his computer and not paying attention and the lion pounces. I wrestle the lion, wrangle his scruffy neck and heave him out the office window which somehow overlooks a high stony cliff to the sea even though we’re nowhere near the ocean.

I’m sure it’s a dream inspired by recent sightings that frighten me more than coyotes. Yesterday when Chester and I walked, we heard a rustling in the oak grove at the bottom of the hill.

cool oak tree

The noise spooked us both, much louder than the familiar rabbit scurry or quail scuttle through dry leaves.  It sounded human-size, but stopped as we neared, the instinct of an animal.  Chester’s fur ruffled; he hush-growled and we turned heel, Chester wildly scanning the scrub oak lining the trail.  To one side stands a solitary oak  and within it we heard another great flurry of leaves overhead. I expected a hawk, a peregrine falcon, maybe even the screech owls that have taken up in the neighborhood but the shadow didn’t fly. It scampered down the branches, down the trunk, a shadow bigger than my dog.

It’s been about a month since J and I spotted a mountain lion off the trail about a five minute walk from this grove and a neighborhood association warning came last week.

A mountain lion has been seen in the Dove Canyon area.

The animal was picked up on cameras operated at Starr Ranch Sanctuary.

Additionally, this past week Dr. Don Earl of Lido Animal Hospital treated a greyhound that survived a serious attack from a mountain lion that climbed into the backyard of a home in Dove Canyon. The Department of Fish and Game is aware of the dog attack and has tips on its website should you encounter a mountain lion.

I read the “Keep Me Wild” tips.

  • If you encounter a mountain lion, do not run; instead, face the animal, make noise and try to look bigger by waving your arms; throw rocks or other objects. Pick up small children.
  • If attacked, fight back.

I don’t have a great track record with looking big. And I’m an awful thrower.  But I sing when I’m nervous and there’s one song that’s on rerun this spring.

This morning, I hurl lyrics, loudly, and yes, maybe dance and air guitar a bit on the trail. Chester didn’t seem to mind, but I might have some explaining to do to the woman who caught me coming around a blind curve. Last I saw, she was backing away, waving her arms to the sky.

With a song on my lips,

Gary Snyder wrote a spot-on poem about sensing the presence of a wild thing.
One granite ridge
A tree, would be enough
Or even a rock, a small creek,
A bark shred in a pool.
Hill beyond hill, folded and twisted
Tough trees crammed
In thin stone fractures
A huge moon on it all, is too much.
The mind wanders. A million
Summers, night air still and the rocks
Warm.   Sky over endless mountains.
All the junk that goes with being human
Drops away, hard rock wavers
Even the heavy present seems to fail
This bubble of a heart.
Words and books
Like a small creek off a high ledge
Gone in the dry air.
A clear, attentive mind
Has no meaning but that
Which sees is truly seen.
No one loves rock, yet we are here.
Night chills. A flick
In the moonlight
Slips into Juniper shadow:
Back there unseen
Cold proud eyes
Of Cougar or Coyote
Watch me rise and go.